Friday, August 24, 2007

Is Corn the Silver Bullet or the Silver Shaft? Or the Silver Queen?

You know, I used to be all "yea, we're growing corn for fuel!" I was a big corn-as-plastic fan and kept looking for plastic bags and other products to start rolling off the lines. I finally found a bottle for water that was made of corn plastic and I was in heaven! This is it! I crowed, we've entered the new millenium!

But is it all that great? The manufacturing alone probably causes more environmental damage than is made up for by the inherent coolness of a water bottle made from corn. Could the same be said for ethanol made from corn? And by growing all this corn for fuel, aren't we taking food away from not only our nation but a lot of other countries who depend on us?

Why not produce ethanol made from sugar cane like in Brazil? I pulled the following paragraph from a Washington Post article entitled "Brazil's Biofuel Strategy Pays off as Gas Prices Soar" and I think it sums up well where we need to be going:
Mills such as Sao Martinho are highly efficient. The pressed sugar-cane juice can either go to huge fermentation vats to make alcohol or be spun in centrifuges to produce sugar and molasses, depending on which product is priced more favorably on any given day. The plant supplies its own electrical power by burning the crushed outer stalk of the cane, known as bagasse .
And, indeed, America is taking baby steps towards that end. An article in Thursday's Palm Beach Post talks about UF joining with Florida Crystals Corp. to build an ethanol production plant in Palm Beach County. It's a good article and worth the read not only because of the counter arguments to building the plant in that area -- it would drain water from the Everglades and cause an environmental hazard to the ecosytem -- but also for the comments from readers. The posters are deeply divided on this issue. Some think it's a great idea, other think it's a disaster. One reader went so far as to say a better alternative would be to build a nuclear power plant in the area, instead.

The ethanol plant in Palm Beach County would use the bagasse -- the fibrous stalks of the cane left after extracting the sap -- in making ethanol via a new technology developed at UF, called cellulosic ethanol. I like the idea of cellulosic ethanol because it can be made from grasses that are relatively easy to grow and from waste products of food crops, like sugar cane. UF is at the forefront of this new technology and hopefully the new ethanol plant at Florida Crystals will be a vanguard for new and cleaner ways to create energy.
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